DFID Cheerleads Aid Abuse in Ethiopia
Working as editor and reporter of three newspapers in Addis Ababa between 2000 and 2008, I had a chance to closely watch the donor community in Ethiopia. In those years the general impression I got from talking to aid workers was that the most pro-Meles of all agencies was the UK Department for International Development (DFID). That became starkly obvious after the election crisis in 2005. Although DFID was one of the first to withhold aid after the government gunned down protesters, it was also one of the earliest enthusiasts of Protection of Basic Services (PBS) and the “things are improving” theory. DFID’s willingness to make a U-turn forced European members of the Development Assistance Group (DAG), which wanted to keep the pressure on Meles Zenawi, to buckle. The reasons were clear. The UK was the second largest donor to Ethiopia. It had also assumed leadership of governmental initiatives of aid to Africa. My impression is now supported by the report on aid abuse by Human Rights Watch:
…in meetings with officials from nearly every other donor country, including some ambassadors, Human Rights Watch heard frustration with how DFID was using its influence. Many said that it was not concerned only with lobbying the Ethiopian government, but also with persuading other development partners to their favorable view of the EPRDF, sometimes undermining collective positions on human rights.
“We all have problems with DFID,” an aid official from a European government told Human Rights Watch. An official from another European development partner country said:
We are extremely concerned about where the UK is going in general. We are at opposite ends of the scale on many, many issues. People are ignoring the fact that in practice and in theory this government is a sort of communist regime that does not believe in individual rights. They believe in Ethiopia’s right to develop. They have a long-term plan for this country and they think they are the only ones who can implement it, and if some people die in the pursuit of Ethiopia’s right to develop then so be it. It is revolutionary. I can’t see the motives behind what the UK is doing. The UK keeps seeing these positive signs and signals that no one else can see.
One aid official from a European Union member state referred to DFID officials as “believers” in the EPRDF project, while yet another said, “I’m glad I’m not working for DFID—here you have space to raise things, talk, you can agree to disagree.”
DFID’s endorsement of EPRDF policies is significant because the ability of donors to act together to pressurize the government on important human rights issues such as elections or monitoring of politicization in development programs rests on them acting together and sharing an analysis of the problem. Even UK Foreign Office officials told researchers that they “share [Human Rights Watch’s] analysis” of the repressive character of the EPRDF regime. Meanwhile, it was abundantly clear that officials in the DFID office across the road in Addis Ababa did not.
The position of DFID is, to some extent, a result of its institutional responsibilities. The 2002 International development Act enshrines in law that the department’s budget can only be used for the purposes of poverty reduction. With such a restriction, DFID is removed from the center of government where decisions of foreign policy and national security are made. As one commentator said, the act made DFID an “Oxfam in whitehall”. It is, therefore, no surprise that DFID focuses largely on trying to get its funds disbursed, and eschews making judgments about the political situation of aid receivers. There are three troubles with this approach. First, it flies in the face of plenty of research that shows the connection between poverty alleviation and governance. Second, it confuses the interest of the recipients with the disbursement of its funds. Third, non-judgment in the face of gross political distortion of aid amounts to a ringing endorsement of the staus quo.
But the problem with DFID in Ethiopia is not just being non-judgmental about the political situation. DFID is often non-judgmental only when that position serves the regime in power. As HRW’s report shows, it does not shy away from displaying its enthusiasm for EPRDF in other situations: getting other donors to support the regime, pressuring British government ministers not to make damaging political statements, and defending the regime in the media. In that sense, it is making British foreign policy by stealth as the conservatives have claimed for years.
One of our readers e-mailed me: “There is a strong debate in the UK on the role of DFID. Ethiopians living in the UK should make our voices heard.”
Check here to understand some aspects of the debate.